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The Chat with Carolyn Whitzman

Carolyn Whitzman (credit Justin van Leeuwen)

In Clara at the Door with a Revolver: The Scandalous Black Suspect, the Exemplary White Son, and the Murder That Shocked Toronto, Carolyn Whitzman explores the story of Clara Ford, a Black tailor arrested in 1894 for killing a prominent businessman. The Toronto Star calls the book “A fascinating exploration of a part of Toronto’s history that deserves a new telling.”

Carolyn Whitzman is a writer and housing policy researcher who lives in Ottawa. She is the author of Suburb, Slum, Urban Village: Transformations in Parkdale, Toronto 1875–2000.



Clara at the Door with a Revolver tells the true story of Clara Ford, a Black tailor and single mother who is arrested in the 1894 killing of a prominent Toronto businessman. Why was this an important story for you to tell?

Clara Ford was both an ordinary woman and an extraordinary one. To deal with the extraordinary first, she was the first woman and second person to testify on her own behalf in a Canadian courtroom. She convinced a jury of twelve white men that she had been manipulated by Toronto police into a false confession. Her testimony reveals an extraordinary performance from a very clever and funny woman. Clara is also the first person I have found described in a North American newspaper as a "homo-sexual," although what the journalist "exposed" (and, to a large extent, invented) would today be called a transgender identity. Her story resonates with contemporary debates on #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and gender identity.

Clara Ford was also a working-class Black woman, and there are very few diaries or other forms of detailed evidence from the everyday lives of 19th century Black women. Because of the intense media interest surrounding Clara’s arrest and trial, we know where she lived and worked, her relationships with her family and friends, and how she spent her scant leisure time.

Clara’s life is a window into a world that hasn’t changed as much as people would like to think over the past 125 years.

Clara’s life is a window into a world that hasn’t changed as much as people would like to think over the past 125 years.

Tell us a bit more about how you first learned about Clara’s story.

Twenty years ago, I was undertaking PhD research on housing policy in relation to stereotypes about neighbourhood change in the Toronto area of Parkdale. The myth was that Parkdale was a wealthy residential suburb in the late 19th century, but the assessment records, street directories, and the architecture of the buildings that remained revealed a different story: rich and poor living in proximity. I was searching for stories about what that was like and came across an article describing an impoverished Black woman who was accused of killing her rich white former neighbour. I jumped into a rabbit hole, reading accounts of the case in the seven daily Toronto newspapers, as well as looking at more modern versions of a story I found increasingly fascinating.

Although I returned to my PhD and then moved to Australia to become a Professor of Urban Planning, I never forgot about Clara’s story. When I resigned from my academic job, I decided to write this book, especially since I was dissatisfied with the description of the case in other sources.

This is a story that hasn’t really been part of the popular history of Toronto. Why do you think it’s been forgotten over time?

As I mentioned above, I think Clara’s time is now. Toronto has been seen as a predominantly British, Protestant city over the 230 years of its settler existence. Indigenous, Black, and other marginalized communities have tended to be ignored, when they were not posited as a "problem" to be "solved."

The murder of Frank Westwood and the trial of Clara Ford has been written about: in the 1920s, in the memoirs of the racist journalist who called Clara a homosexual and a monster, as chapters and articles over the decades on "famous Canadian crimes," and on Toronto history websites. But Clara has generally been treated as a literally "colourful," eccentric or possibly insane minor character. There has been a recent increase in interest in the histories of Black and other marginalized individuals and groups, and a reconsideration of "heroes" like John A. MacDonald and Egerton Ryerson. This book is a small part of that larger process.

What is something you learned about turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Toronto during the course of your research that surprised you most?

Well, I could be trivial and talk about the history of vibrators! But I guess I hadn’t thought enough about the declining fortunes of Black people in Toronto. In the 1850s, there were enough Black refugees from the US, in relation to the total population (500 in a population of 45,000), to be courted as a voting block. But by the 1890s, they were still 500 people in a population of 240,000. Refugees moved back to the US after the Civil War. There was a long economic downturn in Canada from the 1870s to the 1890s, and a lot of Canadians left for the US. Racist attitude appeared to worsen.

In what ways has Clara’s story changed your own understanding of Toronto’s history?

I wouldn’t say research on her story changed my understanding of Toronto history. In my earlier thesis-into-book on Parkdale housing, I talked about how narrow views of respectability influenced policies that affected low-income people.

What writing Clara’s story allowed me to do was to see 19th century Toronto through the eyes of someone who had to work every day or risk being homeless and hungry, and to explore what it was like to be a single mother and a Black woman in that time. My hope is that other hitherto marginalized lives will be reinterpreted for a richer understanding of history.


Excerpt from Clara at the Door with a Revolver: The Scandalous Black Suspect, the Exemplary White Son, and the Murder That Shocked Toronto (from Chapter 6: Go West, Young Man)

Why would Clara go to find work in St. Paul? By the mid-1870s, Toronto was part of the international economy. The global Long Depression began with the collapse of speculative banks in central Europe in 1873. It spread to New York City and then to Canada, where the impacts were felt until 1896. By the end of the Long Depression, one in five Canadians had moved south of the border, either temporarily or permanently, because US industries, protected by tariffs and fuelled by high immigration in the years after the Civil War, were hiring more people and paying higher wages. The expansion of the continental rail network allowed easy movement within and between the two countries.

Work visas were unnecessary, and citizenship had little effect on the prospect of finding a job. In fact, some of the loudest complaints about foreign workers in the latter half of the nineteenth century came from Americans upset about Canadians accepting lower wages and being brought in as strike- breakers. By 1875, the combined population of the Twin Cities was considerably larger than Toronto’s–200,000 to 60,000.

Clara told Charles Ingles that she’d tried and failed to find work as a tailor in St. Paul. When she dressed as a boy, she "found it easier to obtain employment and get higher wages." She joined the choir of the Episcopal Church as a tenor. As the minister prepared Clara for confirmation, he "found that this zealous boy was a girl."

A similar but more disturbing story has Clara moving to Syracuse, New York, when "she was scarcely more than a girl." She secured employment as a tailor, but her "masculine air and physical strength" caused people to think she was a man. Clara was arrested for masquerading in female attire to escape arrest. From Syracuse, she went to Rochester, where "with their usual farseeing acumen the detectives" again arrested her. She was subjected to an assaultive examination to determine her gender. Clara decided she might be better off masquerading as the man she was presumed to be. She bought "a suit of male attire" and left for St. Paul, where she lived and worked as a man for two years and had “a better success in that role than as a woman."

If Clara lived as a man, she was hardly unique. Both women and men relished the opportunity to reinvent themselves as they travelled to the American frontier. Horace Greeley, an American journalist, was the popularizer of the phrase "Go West, young man." In 1859, he interviewed people who’d taken his advice, including those who’d been disappointed in their quest. He dined with one of them, a young clerk who’d gone bankrupt in Colorado’s gold diggings and was returning home to Indiana. The next morning, the train conductor informed Greeley, to his astonishment, that his interview subject and dinner companion had been a woman.

Excerpted with permission from Clara at the Door with a Revolver: The Scandalous Black Suspect, the Exemplary White Son, and the Murder That Shocked Toronto by Carolyn
Whitzman. 2023, On Point Press, an imprint of UBC Press, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada.

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